Friday, January 21, 2011

If You Have a Voice, You Have a Choice

My newest students at the East Communities YMCA are a cross-culture mix of women and children—all in the midst of transforming weak peeps into powerful, self-confident voices through the study of Taekwondo and self-defense.

These students are learning that when they stand up for themselves and others, opportunities and hope become abundant.

My Tiny Texans (ages 3-6) can easily name the four weapons every person is born with: two feet and two hands. But no matter the age, everyone seems to stumble on naming the fifth one.

“Head!” one boy shouts out in class one day.

I nod approvingly. “Not a bad guess,” I say. “Yes, keeping a clear head is a vital asset in self-defense, but that’s not the answer I was looking for. Who else has an answer?”

“Eyes!” a girl shouts.

“Elbows!” another boy says.

“Knees!” two siblings agree.

The students keep guessing until finally the meekest girl in the room shyly raises her hand.

“Yes, Ms. Diller?”

“Your voice,” the 7-year-old squeaks.

“YES!” I shout, giving her a high-five. She smiles through missing front teeth.

Students rarely think of their voice as a weapon. Sure, everyday we see people yelling at each other on the street and on television. But rarely is the voice demonstrated as a positive, gentle-yet-firm tool to de-escalate confrontation or stand ground when boundaries are crossed.

A surprising number of women who attend my self-defense class for the first time struggle not to laugh or feel silly when they kihap, or use their spirit voice, while kicking or punching. So over the years, I’ve developed a fun, easy drill called “Blink/Don’t Blink.” When I find students who are shy about using their voice, I have them practice projecting the power of their kihap to make their partner blink. When on the receiving end of the kihap, students try to stay centered, calm, and unnerved—known in Japanese martial arts circles as the “state of no mind.”

Two new white belts—11-year-old twin brothers forever on the cusp of fierce competition and sibling bickering—had no problem finding their voice the other day once they stopped giggling.

At first they couldn’t keep a straight face.

“O.K.,” I said, “five push-ups every time you laugh at your brother.”

“One, ma’am; two, ma’am...,” they counted as they lifted and lowered their plank-straight bodies on the mat.

They each did a couple sets of push-ups, and became more serious.

“Ha!” one brother yelled. His twin still snickered.

“One, ma’am; two ma’am...” his brother counted as he did push-ups.

“Try again,” I said, encouraging them to picture themselves in a self-defense situation.

“No!” one yelled at the other, making him blink.

“Shut up!” the other retorted.

“O.K.,” I interrupted. “That was good. But I didn’t make myself clear on the parameters of this drill. Let’s be respectful. What’s another way to stand up for yourself without saying ‘shut up’?”

“Back away!” the brother shouted.

“Better!” I cheered.

Both brothers smiled. They were proud of what they were learning—forgetting that just moments before they couldn’t look each other in the eye without busting a gut.

As a teacher, it’s always a good day when you see your students grow and break barriers. Women who find their voice, though, are the most exciting for me to teach, for with this type of awakening, they tear down years of society’s messages of:
• “Be a nice girl.”
• “Don’t rock the boat.”
• “Ladies don’t act that way.”
• “You can’t say that.”
• “If you speak up like that, people will start calling you a b----.”

In addition, many women and youth I teach these days live on the poorest side of town. They may already believe messages such as:
• “You’re destined to stay poor and powerless.”
• “Your options in life are limited.”
• “Look out for No. 1 because no one’s got your back.”
• “You might as well get high because you’re life’s not going anywhere.”

Get a group of women and kids together in one of my martial arts classes, though, and watch a light go on in their psyche, a flame flicker in their spirit, and a powerful, previously squashed voice rise from the depths of their soul.

Last Sunday, one lady in my Fit for Defense class almost made herself blink from the voice that erupted like a volcano from her diaphragm. Another woman who came in with a chirp left with a voice as strong as a bullhorn.

They stumbled out of the room afterward amazed by their meager personal triumphs. I wanted to tell them that more will be revealed, but I feared they couldn’t handle any more empowerment, lest their spirits go supernova right there.

I’m blessed that on my journey, many martial arts masters helped me find my voice. I’m honored to pass on my knowledge—to help others find their voices, too. It’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to build hope in others?

If you have a voice, you have a choice.

And from there, anything is possible.


  1. As always, well said! I sometimes find it difficult myself to let my voice be heard, but Tae Kwon Do has definitely helped with that. And it is truly amazing to see how a strong voice can improve someone's physical strength. It doesn't seem like it should be that simple, but it really is.

  2. Thanks, Cathy. I needed that. Someone yelled at me today. I was in his house, so I felt I had to leave, but I spoke up and felt the power of choice. I chose to return to be with those I love & had come to take care of. His anger was a defense or an expression of the terrible stress we feel when realities of impending loss overwhelm us.

    What a wonderful thing to remember, and how fortunate that in this country we have a voice, and many choices as women.